Ghost-writing, and how to avoid being too precious
As a copywriter, I’m often asked what my favourite kind of writing task is.
My answer has never been, nor will it ever be, white papers. My peers may enjoy getting stuck into a multi-page document with many thousands of words, mostly repetitive, but not me. I’m more of an article writer, and I enjoy scripts and web copy, that sort of thing.
“What have you written that I might have seen?” is a common question.
“Unless you read corporate blogs or CEO emails, probably not much,” is my reply.
Friends and family persist in taking an interest. I have to show them articles that are hard to prove are mine, because they don’t include my name. This is because, as most copywriters know, ghost-writing plays a significant role in the everyday life of a professional writer. Simply put, we write stuff that others take credit for.
And a professional copywriter who’s been around a few years has come to terms with this. For me, the thrill of being published for the first time came and went when Robbie was still in Take That. It’s still great to be credited in a new publication, but the lustre has dimmed. My bills are more often covered by writing anonymously, and I’m content with this. Where I’m most often emotionally challenged is when someone wants to change my work, but this too is something to get over, and it sits at the core of this article.
The (perceived) skills gap
You could argue that the difference between a writer and a designer is that a designer will be credited for their work, and can reinforce their expertise more proficiently than a writer. The problem with writing is that everyone thinks they can do it, especially those who can’t.
Question a designer about their design and they may not speak to you for a while. Question a manager about their management skills and your life will become a misery. Question a CEO about their leadership skills and you may be sacked. But the writer and their work is questioned mercilessly, because everyone thinks they can do it. Here's how I manage this: I pretend to agree with people’s suggestions, then revert to how it should be done, or at least find a compromise. (Good suggestions are always taken onboard.) You have to have confidence in your work, because it comes from experience and know-how. Senior managers simply need to impress their opinion, but they don't know what you know about writing. Hear them out, but stick to your guns.
However, where you’re ghost-writing, I advise learning to let go. Add your expertise, and cajole people to see the benefits of certain inclusions, but not at the expense of serving the client. If their name is on the work, they get the last word. Even when they’re absolutely wrong. I would want the last word if my name were on it, too. Of course, you should save revisions – include the changes the client wants to make in drafts, so that you can go back if they change their mind. But don’t get caught up in too many drafts. Draw a line where a line needs to be drawn, or you’ll waste time making changes you don’t believe in and won't get paid for them.
Being precious isn’t worthwhile. You will still be paid the same rate regardless of whose name is on the article. Feeling appreciated isn’t necessarily part of the contract. Nice clients will thank you for writing on their behalf, but usually only when they remember who did the writing.
I’m aware of having painted a bleak picture of life as a ghost-writer. It's not. I'm happy as Larry sharing these observations with you. Stoicism is an alien concept to many excellent writers, but it works. Copywriting is a fabulous profession, and ghost-writing is an underrated and rewarding skill to have. I love it when my work is published, even when my friends and family don’t know it’s me.